Copper River Record January 2017
By Robin Mayo
The Root Glacier Trail must be one of the busiest places in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. On weekends it can almost reach traffic-jam status, with large groups maneuvering past each other on the narrow switchbacks nearly bring all traffic to a standstill. But other days you’ll have the place all to yourself. Either way, it is a guaranteed adventure suitable for almost every hiker.
The trail begins in Kennecott, where you can stand among the grand old relics of the industrial past, and try to imagine a day when this valley swarmed with workers and buzzed with machinery. I love the contrast between the manmade and natural sights, and the way the forces of nature are having their way.
Of course, just getting to the trailhead can be an adventure in itself. Give yourself at least 3 hours to drive the McCarthy Road from Chitina, then more time to walk across the footbridge and catch a shuttle van up to Kennecott. Be sure to stop in at the Ranger Station in the old general store for trail maps, updates, and safety information.
Even on hot days, it is important to carry extra layers on this hike. Once you get close to the glacier, the air turns a lot cooler, and the slightest breeze can create a refrigerator effect with damp clothing. Sturdy boots are helpful for the steep hard trails, and essential if you will be putting on crampons and going on the ice. It is a 4-mile round trip, and can easily fill a day, so bring plenty of water and snacks.
The wide, well maintained trail heads north up the valley, and several branches strike off to the mines and mountains beyond. The main trail is cut into the hill beside the Root Glacier, occasionally traversing a stream or diving into the surprisingly thick forest. It is about two miles up to a primitive campsite and access to the glacier. The trail continues on up the valley, but for now we’ll just go to the glacier.
Head left down a steep zigzagging trail. There are tent spaces, bear boxes which are a bit tricky to find, and outhouses located up near the main trail. We spent a night last summer here with a large group of youth and adults, and there was much hilarity as convoys would form to make the trek to the latrine. Bears are abundant in the area, so be sure to take precautions to ensure a safe camp and unspoiled wildlife.
Another quarter mile of switchbacks lead down to a good place to access the glacier. Crampons are necessary to walk safely, and I strongly encourage you to hire a guide or recruit an experienced friend if you want to go out on the ice. Several guiding companies in McCarthy and Kennecott offer reasonably priced options for guided glacier treks. There are many hazards, and rescue is difficult if you do end up in trouble in this remote location.
For a day hike, exploring the moraines and admiring the expansive views in all directions make this destination a very worthwhile jaunt. I always enjoy meeting the groups hiking by, and watching tiny figures exploring out on the glacier. If you want to spend time out on the glacier, consider bringing camping gear and staying a night or two. In the early morning quiet, hearing the creaks and groans of the nearby ice are an unforgettable experience. There is nothing like a glacier to put things in perspective.
A primitive campsite on the lateral moraine is a welcome place to rest after a long day exploring the Root Glacier.
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WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.
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